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Spotlights [Issue # 2 ]
Ry Cooder: Welcome To Mambo-Jazz Heaven

By By Ken Micallef


Ry Cooder has done more than his fair share of Cubano music explorations. So when it came time to stretch the folkloric limits, Cooder ignored the future and concentrated on the past.
"We felt that there was a sound that had not been explored," says Cooder. "A Cuban electric guitar band that might reinterpret the atmosphere of the 1950's with beauty, agility and power. We figured on two guitars, two drum sets, congas, and bass - a 'Sexteto' with enough horsepower to swing like a big band and still have the subtlety to reveal the nuance and mystery of classic songs. We hoped to make a landing back in the cool world of Mambo-jazz, somewhere between Perez Prado and Henry Mancini, playing ultra high-grade jukebox music."

For this steam ship to another era, Cooder enlisted Manuel Galbán, a near legend in Cuba. A member of Buena Vista Social Club and Los Zafiros (the Cuban doo-wop vocal group of which he was both guitarist and arranger), Galbán provided the alternate guitar voice and spiritual connection Cooder needed. Cooder included his son Joachim on drums as well as studio veteran Jim Keltner, shipped twenty boxes of drums and percussion to Havana, and hoped for hot music. Initial sessions fell flat until Cooder hit the streets and hired three local Bata drummers.

"Joachim and I tried a blues shuffle with one of the younger Bata men, who was about 17 and not so worried about folklore, and suddenly I felt somehow poised and at a point of departure from the fantasy of the past, to a tiny glimpse of a possible future - a rare and almost mystical feeling. But who can say what a 17 year-old Cuban Bata drummer thinks? Myself, I'm wondering, are we saying hello, or goodbye?"

If Mambo Sinuendo is any indication, "hellos" were the order of the day. This is time warp music crossing '50s futurism with '60s melodicism, packed into the folkloric bump and grind of Cuba's sweltering rhythmic tradition. The guitars pose resonant, lyrical lines over enchanted '50s calypso grooves, singers chant like sultry birds over soaring piano montunos - it's a land time forget with Los Lobos, Lawrence Welk and Duane Eddy as your guides.

"Galbán is drawn to experimentations, says Cooder. "It has something to do with coming up in the 1950's and 60's. Galbán is interested in music as something imaginary or speculative, whereas many traditional Cuban performers tend to want to play, sing, and then go home and forget about it, not giving much thought to anything outside their own experience."

Mambo Sinuendo is modern time travel, music that sounds both grounded and weightless. Duality is not a trait common to much contemporary music, but Cooder somehow captured modernity and nostalgia, grace and fire, composure and combustion.

"You can look at Mambo Sinuendo as a road trip through different wordless fantasy landscapes," concludes Cooder. "Sometimes you are in bright daylight; sometimes the streets are dark and empty. This music is Cuban soul and high performance twang. We had a great time with it, and I hope Perez Prado can dig it and pick up on it, wherever he may be."


Mambo Ninuendo
Nonesuch/Perro Verde

Welcome To Mambo-Jazz Heaven Ry Cooder Mambo Ninuendo


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